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Wander (short story)

He’d been walking a long time. Days? Weeks? Years? It no longer matter what time it was. It was today, always today. He had nowhere particular he had to be. He wore no watch, carried no day planner. His calendar was free.

He walked away from it all some years back and had just kept walking. When would this walk be over? He’d not planned on starting it, so perhaps it would end the same way.

It started suddenly. Just like with spring tulips, it seemingly sprung up all at once. Only a careful observer could see that change had been coming a long time.

It happened suddenly for him, that was for sure. One day he gathered up a duffel bag’s worth of possessions, put on his shoes and her all weather coat, and walked outside. He never thought he’d make it past the yard, but he did. Then he thought for sure she’d stop him when he got to the end of the street, but she didn’t. Every step further from that house his fear grew smaller and his excitement grew larger.

The thought of leaving never crossed his mind all those years. Not like he was happy being there, mind you. It was just that he didn’t know he had a choice. It was just like Hagar and the well. She was suffering and all along what she needed was right there and she couldn’t see it.

He walked three blocks fueled on fear and excitement before he started to wonder where he was headed. It was strange to feel so much at the same time after a lifetime of not feeling at all. Perhaps he felt once? Surely he had. He couldn’t remember.

At the edge of the neighborhood he decided to try to feel, but not too much. Which way? Straight? Right? Left? Turning around and going back was right out, he knew that. Just thinking about that made his stomach get smaller and tighter and warmer. Sounded like “no” most emphatically. This was new – his body was a sense organ, tallying pros and cons and providing the result. It was like having to learn another language to figure out what it was saying. Why trust his brain to tell him how to react, when he can use his entire body? His stomach loosened when he faced right. Okay, that way.

He didn’t know where that way lead, but it was the same no matter which way it took him. He’d never been allowed out of the house. Never been given a map of the city, or of anywhere for that matter. There was no television in the house either, and certainly not a computer. He had no idea that there was a whole world outside of the house, and that was how she planned it.

He was lucky she’d even spoken to him, or he’d never have picked up the language. She didn’t at first, but he overheard snippets of words and sentences when she’d have her boyfriend of the month over to spend the night. Sometimes one of them would try to talk to him, try to make friends with him as a way of placating her. Perhaps he thought he could stay longer if he turned out to be father material? The way to a woman’s heart is through her child, right? Those that tried might as well have saved themselves the trouble. Once she realized they just wanted free room and board she cut them loose and changed the locks again.

All these years later, his body told him more than just how he felt. The rain was coming soon. His nose told him this. The hairs on his arm said it was going to be a long quiet soak. His big toe told him the mist he was in would pick up, grow just enough to be annoying and cut down on visibility in about 20 minutes. That was enough time to find a restaurant to wait it out.

Another wanderer had taught him the tricks of the trade. Look for a restaurant that is a little busy, but not overly so. If it wasn’t busy enough he’d stick out. Then the employees or customers would notice. If he was lucky, they’d gently wake him themselves. If not, a cop would be called to do that chore. Sometimes he’d simply be asked to leave. Sometimes he’d be told to never come back. On the other hand, if the restaurant was too busy, a customer might sit too close to him and spot that he didn’t quite fit. Perhaps they’d notice his aroma, or realize he was sleeping, or notice that he only had a soda in front of them.

The goal was not to be noticed.

A soda bought you a table for at least an hour. Keep it refilled and it looked like you just got there. Plus, the sugar and caffeine didn’t hurt. It was great to get refills – you could have a two-liter’s worth of pop for pocket change. If you felt like it you could even take the cup for next time if you could find another one of that chain. If that one was busy enough they’d never even notice you’d not bought anything from them.

Actual sleeping required some skill and a prop. Find a flip phone on the side of the road or at a local thrift store, hold it open in your hand, and you could slouch down and make it appear you were checking texts while you dozed. People rarely looked long enough to notice your fingers weren’t moving. Most folks had been taught it was rude to stare.

If you were homeless for longer than a month you started to become invisible. People just didn’t want to look at you, to see you. They were afraid you’d catch their eye and say “Excuse me sir? Can you spare some change?” They didn’t want to hear whatever story you made up to convince them or yourself of your worthiness. It was easier to pretend you didn’t exist. It was a little lie they told themselves.

He was through with lies. They were too hard to keep up with, too hard to justify. They grew and grew, one lie leading to another, becoming a tangle like weeds or rope. Before you knew it you were lost or tripped up. He decided it was best to tell the truth, but not too much of it. Too much talk spoils everything.

He carried as little money as possible, same as everything else. It all weighed him down. Everything took up space, either in his bag or in his head. Traveling light was about more than having an extra pair of socks or a small bottle of shampoo.

The rain was almost over. Time to go.

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